This weekend will see the release of two fairy tale inspired stories. The first is the movie, Huntsman: Winter’s War. We recommend that you don’t go see it, but we do recommend that you check out the second one, Game of Thrones. Yes, the story of sex, violence, and dragons returns this Sunday for its sixth season, but is it possible that the HBO fantasy drama is as much about fairy tales as it is about beheadings and boobies? Well, follow us down the road to grandma’s house as we set out to encounter big bad direwolves, giants, and a red witch or two. You might be surprised what we turn up, but don’t be surprised if we reveal spoilers for seasons 1-5.
Once Upon a Tyrion…
As everyone’s favorite Lannister might suggest, we need to first define the problem. What is a fairy tale? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a fairy tale is “a story (as for children) involving fantastic forces and beings (as fairies, wizards, and goblins),” or “a story in which improbable events lead to a happy ending.” We have to admit that both of those things are true about fairy tales, but does that match up with A Song of Ice and Fire, or Game of Thrones? Both definitely have fantastic forces and creatures, but they are certainly not for children, at least not for children who don’t want to grow up to be Ramsey Bolton. Nor are the George RR Martin novel series and its subsequent TV show filled with happy endings, just ask anyone named Stark or Snow. So how can we compare them with a fairy tale?
Let’s start with the commonalities. Game of Thrones has dragons and even giants, but admittedly there is not a lot of them. Daenerys has just three dragons, and we only ever see that one frost giant among the wildlings. Yet, we are told that such things were more numerous in the ancient days. Things like dragons, giants, and even magic were more plentiful in the stories that Old Nan used to tell Brann Stark before he went to bed. Now those were fairy tales. They were all about heroes defeating monsters, grumpkins, and grave evil to save the kingdoms and winning the hearts of fair maidens. They were filled with love and chivalry and all the things we think of when we hear the word “fairy tale.” In those stories, which took place during the aptly named Age of Heroes, the protagonist were always the good guys. They were able to win the day against all odds and beat back the darkness with the help of magic and courage, just like every fairy tale we know. Old Nan’s stories were always scary, but the improbable events still led to a happy ending. However, it also seems that in the land of Westeros many of those stories -which took place during the Long Night– might actually be true.
Compare those stories to the story we are witnessing in Game of Thrones, which still involve magic and fantastical elements, but the outcome is hardly certain. In fact, things like chivalry, heroism, or true love are usually rewarded with daggers in the dark or even a red wedding. Every good and heroic character -Ned, Robb, Jon- are dead. The most valiant knights are either a narcissistic incestuous cripple, or the Knight of Flowers, who has very little interest in winning a fair lady’s heart -if you know what we mean. The queen is a ruthless power-hungry dictator, the beautiful princess is a conniving schemer. The most heroic character is a disfigured Imp, and for four seasons we were all actively rooting for the death of a blonde-haired child-king. So we ask again? How can we call this a fairy tale?
Joffrey and the Beanstalk
In fact, it’s not a fairy tale, at least not as we consider them. Game of Thrones is a subversion of the fairy tale ideal. The true genius of George RR Martin’s work is that he is showing us what a fairy tale really is. All those old stories that Old Nan used to tell Brann Stark, we can guess that they were probably real. After all, we know that the white walkers are real. The giants are real. The Wall is real. The stories form the Age of Heroes actually happened, but they probably did not happen as their fairy tale versions suggest. One day, in the world of Westeros people may tell the fairy tale version of the great Mother of Dragons and her conquest of Westeros and how the seven kingdoms fought back the invasion of the Others and the new Long Night, but it won’t be this story. It won’t be Game of Thrones. It will be something else.
The fairy tale version of A Song of Ice and Fire will have some of the same elements, but homogenized and embellished. As human beings we like to fit events into simplistic narrative structures. Thus, for the audience and the characters, who have lived and watched the highs and lows of Game of Thrones the series finale might be satisfactory, but probably not “happy.” Yet, to the children of Westeros who will hear the story centuries later, safe in their beds, they will get the happy ending. They will get the true love and the brave knights and all the rest. To them there will be clear cut villains and valiant heroes, and they both may not be who you expect. Remember, history and fairy tales are written by the victors.
The stories those children hear may tell of the evil betrayals of Ned Stark or the vile crimes of Tyrion Lannister. Children may grow up learning that the sweet and generous King Joffery was killed on his wedding day or that Tywin Lannister was a saint and a caring father. Fairy tales tend to wash out the gray and replace it with black and white, but if there is one thing we can say about Game of Thrones, it is almost entirely filled with gray. With very few expectations there are no completely good or completely bad characters. They are all humans with hopes, desires, flaws, and nude bodies, all of which we -the audience- get to see… a lot. So, Martin is telling us the real story behind that future fairy tale, which will be a story that has no room for nuisance or character flaws. All of that will be wiped out in favor of a neat narrative and a clear cut moral. Yet, maybe you still don’t believe this was George RR Martin’s intent all along. You might be right except…
Little Ned Riding Stark
… He has already painted us a clear picture of this very idea. Maybe the vague connection between the Age of Heroes and the trials of Jon Snow are too obscure, but Martin has given us an even more relevant example. The rebellion of Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark has already become something of a fairy tale, and it has only been a single generation since they deposed the Mad King and took over the kingdom. Yet, all the elements are there. Brave Robert Baratheon -enraged by the abduction of his beloved Lyanna Stark- starts a war to win her back. Along with her brother and his best friend, Ned, they rally the forces of justice and good to overthrow the Mad King, Aerys Targaryan, and his evil son Rhaegar. Robert and his mighty war hammer defeat Rhaegar in single combat during the heroic Battle of the Trident, but alas he is too late to save his beloved Lyanna. Still, he heroically defeats the Mad King and justice rules over the lands of Westeros once again.
That is typically how that story is often portrayed whenever characters in Game of Thrones talk about it, but we have already had some hints at cracks in that fantastical façade. First of all, Aerys Targaryan was killed by Jamie Lannister, his own kingsguard, who stabbed him through the back. That is the sort of thing people are aware of, but often gets left out of the “official” story. This dichotomy is also most clearly seen with Rhaegar. Whenever Robert talked about him we got an image of a mad man composed of butchery and evil. Yet, whenever Daenerys -his sister- talks about him we get the sense of a warm, caring, and brave individual. Two completely separate ideas from two completely opposing view points. We are seeing how point of view colors the retelling of tales, and how it is the winners who most often write history and fairy tales. This is further proven by the many many hints that Lyanna Stark was not abducted and raped by Rhaegar, but that she was in love with him. -r+l=j- However, this sort of nuance does not work for a heroic tale of good versus evil, and is all but forgotten in the retellings.
In the end, Robert Baratheon became king and married the beautiful Cersi Lannister. To the story that was the happy ending, but to Robert it was clearly bitter sweet. Martin is showing us that in real life there rarely is a “happily ever after,” and he is doing so by using a genre that epitomizes that idea. Robert and Ned may have won the day, but happy endings are only about where the story stops, because if you keep following the lives of Ned and Robert you know that their stories don’t end so happily after all. From the very first season, Game of Thrones has been trying to prove this point. The books and the TV series have always been about subverting expectations and bucking tropes.
So we ask again, “is A Song of Ice and Fire and its TV show a fairy tale?” Yes, it is about fairy tale ideas, knights, magic, bravery, princesses and kings, but it is showing us the story before it gets cleaned and homogenized and becomes just another bed time retelling. All the other elements, the fantasy, the swordplay, the magic are there. Game of Thrones is a real-life fairy tale. It is meant to expose the truth behind fairy tales, because they may be great as stories, but that is all they are, stories. The world cannot always be defined by “Once upon a time,” and especially never by “Happily ever after…” But then again, maybe we’re wrong. Maybe Season 6 will prove that Jon Snow is only just unconscious, and waiting for Love’s True Kiss.